On a team that will be arguably the deepest that Mike White had in Gainesville there is still one player that is likely to lead the way both offensively and defensively–senior Colin Castleton.
Castleton was Florida’s biggest story of the 2020-21 season, going from a player who was hardly utilized for two seasons at Michigan to one of the best big men in the SEC. For most of the summer leading into the season one of the major conversations around Florida basketball was who would start at center–sophomore Omar Payne, or incoming transfer Colin Castleton. It seemed like, at least in the eyes of most fans, that Payne was leading the way, but Castleton was announced as the day one starter. Quickly it became apparent as to why he won the job as he was able to anchor the defense defensively and be a lethal scorer around the rim putting his length and touch to work.
Ultimately, Castleton was a second team All-SEC performer. Only one first team All-SEC performer is returning (Vandebilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr.), meaning Castleton should easily be a favorite to land on the first team this season. Additionally, he’ll almost certainly be on the preseason Kareem Abdul-Jabbbar award watch list, the title given to the best center in college basketball.
This past summer Castleton entered the NBA Draft to see what his pro prospects might be. He had a number of workouts and waited until the last minute to pull his name out of the draft, suggesting that there may have been some interest in his services. It was said that he performed extremely well in the workouts he had, something that should keep him motivated to have one more stellar year of college before hopefully fulfilling his dream of making the leap to the NBA ranks.
With the Gators losing scoring maestro Tre Mann to the NBA there is set to be a lot of weight on Castleton’s shoulders, a role he will likely relish. It’s not often a center gets to be the focal point of a team in modern basketball, but Castleton finds himself in that rare position.
Exactly how he will be used is a bit of a question mark. The Gators had an elite offensive big in Kerry Blackshear two seasons ago, and while he had a solid season, it never felt like the Gators were able to get the most out of his scoring ability.
Like Blackshear, Castleton is a talented scorer on the low block. His 1.1 points per possession on post ups was one of the best numbers in the country, and his length made it so that his hook shots around the rim were largely unblockable. While his efficiency on these possessions was impressive, deeper analysis shows that this number doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. Castleton was able to bully smaller big men and easily score over smaller guards who switched onto him, but he wasn’t as successful against centers his own size. He was still a solid post scorer against similarly sized competition, but wasn’t quite the 1.1 points per possession scorer his overall efficiency number would suggest.
With the Gators graduating point guard Tre Mann they will need other players to pick up his playmaking slack and while Castleton is far from a point guard, he is someone who had some good moments passing out of the low block. On possessions where he got the ball in the post and passed out of it the gators were at an even 1.0 point per possession, still an awfully efficient number. Despite the Gators sometimes not showing great spacing or movement once the ball was thrown into Castleton these were still efficient plays, and with another offseason to figure things out offensively the Gators should be much better offensively around Castleton once they get him the ball on the block. The added offensive IQ of veteran perimeter players in Brandon McKissic, Myreon Jones, and Phlandrous Fleming should also make for better movement away from the ball, and Florida could have even more success playing through Castleton.
Mike White has never been a coach who has really wanted to pound the ball inside, so also look for the Gators to get Castleton out on the perimeter a bit more where he can operate as a passer out of the high post. Florida has occasionally used Princeton offense inspired motion offenses that are quarterbacked by their center catching the ball in the high post and becoming the trigger man and they have had success with it, and it’s something we could see them utilize again with a good passing big man in Castleton.
Another reason we could see Castleton a bit more on the perimeter is that he wants to be a shooter. Despite having only taken 8 threes in his college career (and missing all of them) Castleton believes he can be a three-point shooter, and it is something he was able to do in NBA workouts. In multiple of these workouts he did three-point shooting drills that involved 100 reps, and in each one of them he was able to hit over 50% of his threes. The natural response to this would be to point out that workouts are different than live game action, and while that is certainly true, a player working out in front of NBA executives is plenty of pressure as well and he was able to perform in those settings.
When Castleton has shot the ball from the perimeter his stroke hasn’t looked the prettiest, something that also has to do with his long arms, but we can assume based on his summer workouts that he has probably cleaned up the stroke and became a better shooter. We will see exactly how much better when the season comes.
The offensive glass is another area where Castleton will help out Florida’s offense, creating second chance opportunities and easy put back attempts at the rim. He was 79th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (and 4th in the SEC) last season, getting 12% of the Gators’ misses while he was on the floor. Interestingly enough he wasn’t a great defensive rebounder, at least by the percentages, but that has a bit to do with Florida’s scheme. He could still be more disciplined at finding bodies on the defensive glass and finishing possessions with a rebound, but already he is one of Florida’s best in that area.
While Florida is going to rely on Castleton for a good bit of offensive output, his work on the defensive end where he will most lead the way.
Mike White’s man to man defensive scheme is all about pressure and running players off the three-point line. The benefit of that scheme is that it takes away high value three-point attempts, but the downside is that it makes for a lot of driving lanes and puts a lot of pressure on the backside of your defense.
Luckily, Castleton was up to the challenge.
Averaging 2.3 blocks per game he was an elite shot blocker, whether as the primary stopper standing in the paint and shielding the rim or as a weak side shot blocker who rotated over to get his hands on an unsuspecting offensive player’s layup. He was 29th in the country in block percentage and given the amount of shots he contested at the rim you can easily say he was one of the best shot blockers in the country.
There were a whole lot of sloppy defensive possessions from Florida’s perimeter that were bailed out by Castleton’s shot blocking, and had he not been on the floor the Gators could have hemorrhaged a lot more points. Fortunately, the Gators should be a better perimeter defensive team this year. Brandon McKissic and Phlandrous Fleming were all-league defenders in their respective conferences last year, and freshman Kowacie Reeves has length and athleticism that Florida’s perimeter has lacked recently. Returning sophomore Niels Lane was a stout perimeter defense in his limited role last year and with him likely to get more of a regular shift this year the Gators will have one more elite defender on the court.
Even though Florida’s perimeter should be better defensively there are always going to be times where dribble penetration will be allowed and in those instances Florida is always going to be lucky to have Castleton there to help out.
Mike White’s best teams at Florida were when Kevarrius Hayes was manning the middle and quarterbacking the defense with his shot blocking and ability to guard pick and rolls. If Castleton can bring close to that level of defense while also being one of the Gators’ most valuable players on the offensive end, it’s easy to see why he could be one of the best players in the country.
In addition to his scoring, rebounding, and shot blocking, Castleton brings an X-factor that this team needs. He’s tough, loud, and competitive, things that Mike White had been desperately trying to find from his rosters in recent seasons before Castleton came to town. His level of emotion is high, yet under control, and most of all, it’s contagious. Seeing him get a huge offensive rebound followed by a dunk was sure to get Florida’s bench into a frenzy and his ability to diagnose plays on the defensive end before swatting a shot into the third row inspired his teammates to dig in a little harder defensively on the next possession.
Colin Castleton will be as important to this team as anyone on the roster and just how well his season goes could define the ceiling of Florida basketball.